Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Music

You may recall that I blogged about music a few months ago. This is not intended to be a continuation of that post, though I'm sure there are repeated themes.

Last week, I attended a violin recital. There were a maximum of three people on stage: the violinist, the pianist, and his page turner. While I often appreciate classical music for its artistic beauty, I also appreciate it as a conducive backdrop for thinking. So as I watched the violinist and pianist playing together, I couldn't help but notice their artistic precision. For over an hour, they played in perfect sync, neither one leaning on the other, both trusting the other to come in exactly at the right time with precisely the right pitch. And neither failed the other at any point. I could not help but wonder at the deep intimacy that must be shared by two people who can make such complex music seem so beautifully effortless together.

I've been a bit of a musician all my life. From the age of ten (when the opportunity was first presented to me), I have been singing in liturgical choirs (sometimes more than one at the same time), with no more than the occasional summer's break. In the early years, it was always choral singing; beginning in high school, more complex choral groups have alternated with simpler guitar-led, individually-miked music groups. I have always sung in my house, to the radio, at dances, and yes, even in the shower. I've not shied away from singing for performances, even a capella.

My favorite thing about singing has always been harmonies. I've never formally learned any music theory, but I've sung enough written harmonies that I've learned the basic patterns for choral soprano, alto, and tenor parts, and can add a new harmony to just about anything. M asked me once why it is that I'm "so obsessed with harmonies." I was caught off guard, and had to think about this for a day, but eventually I realized that what draws me to harmonies is beauty. It's taking one line of music and overlaying another line to more deeply reveal the beauty of the whole, a realization which only draws my heart deeper into love of music.

But I am not an instrumentalist. Sure, I took some piano lessons when I was young, but some lessons do not a musician make (talent and dedication are good starting points instead). I'd been coming to see that more and more, as I spent time with musician friends and watched them jam together, improvising with their instruments. Since I've never quite gotten the hang of the old jazz scat, I've always been obliged to sit on the sidelines and watch. After all, unless there's a melody to play off of, a harmony doesn't have anywhere to go.

Switching gears. During Easter Vigil practice, A shared with us the economic principle of diminishing returns: that is, the more you practice, the less you improve (because the more you practice, the more you need to practice to remain at your present level, and the less improvement there is for you to make in the grand scheme of things). This struck me as relevant to my own situation as a vocal musician. I can sing just about anything very confidently so long as I'm given notes on a treble clef or neums, and those notes are being sung or played by someone else there (and am pretty okay with just one of the two), which makes me a great addition to a small or last-minute choral ensemble. Too, I can make up a harmony to just about anything, even music I don't know. Consequently, I know I'm no professional, but I can fake it with the best of them, waltzing in and adding beauty and complexity to an otherwise perfectly fine sound.

Further reflection upon this principle has made me realize that I often remain separate from those around me when I sing harmonies. I am but the beautiful icing on their delicious, already frosted cake; we enrich each other when put together, and my skills do little alone, but we're really not tied to each other in any way.

Too, these are natural talents, and I've become accustomed to working with others with equal or less musical skill (even when my director or music leader was brilliant, those vocalists around me have needed more help). Which means that making music is so easy, it's almost boring at times. Two notable exceptions, however, are turning that around and deepening my skills in ways I never would have expected.

D, on guitar and voice, was in charge of a pianist/male vocalist and three female vocalists. He easily doled out jobs according to our skills, which he saw clearly: melody for you, alto for you, tenor for you. To me he gave the task of singing a low harmony not like the two others that still sounds good. This was not a skill I'd been aware of having at the time, yet as I honed it week after week, it quickly became my favorite musical skill. I learned to accept feedback on specific parts, and my bond with those musicians is stronger because of D's strong leadership.

In the meantime, I have sung under several leaders who have not been able to see and apply the full talents of my vocal gifts, and have acutely missed the challenge of singing in D's group. Even when I started singing under I a few months ago, it was more of the same. But time has gone on, and we've begun frequent practices, because A & M, our new musicians, are less comfortable faking it every week (and really, if we're going to play weekly, we should be practicing at least monthly). I is a songwriter of incredible talent, and has learned my strengths and weaknesses enough that he can suggest to me new ways to use my voice, akin to how he might suggest a particular pattern for our bassist. At first this was strange, but I quickly came to love it: Not only do I revel in being known in this special way, but vast new worlds of musical possibility are being opened before me just by virtue of his saying, "Here, try this." Too, practices turn to bonding time turn to jam sessions, and I have amazingly discovered that, with these musicians, I can jam along on voice!

Let me try to explain for my non-musician readers. In jamming, you're playing your musical instrument (which is itself an extension of your person) for sheer love of playing, and the people around you are doing the same, and the result is often that you are intuitively on the same page, weaving beauties around each others' musical patterns and creating a joyful, beautiful, and irrepeatable noise unto the Lord (whether you intend it to Him or not, I am firmly convinced that good music always glorifies God). It is one of the greatest and most intense natural highs I have ever experienced.

And I suppose that's what has brought me here, to this rambling and probably too-long post (I haven't dubbed this my starter blog for nothing!): making beautiful music is truly a soulful way to glory in the Lord, and I am blown away by the Lord's sudden deepening of my sharing in this gift. Now I finally understand how someone might want to leave everything behind and live for the music. I suppose I'll just have to live for the Lord and let Him provide the tunes.

PS - Check out some of I's music. The particular song that occasioned this post is not up there yet, but I stand by my assertion that if I know anyone who has what it takes to make a living as a musician, it's him. (My favorite of his posted songs is Dreams.)

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